artnet Asks: Mary Judge on the Best of Both Worlds

And what it's like to be both an artist and a gallerist.

Mary Judge. Photo by Sigrid Estrada.

Many artists try their hand at curating at one point or another, but few of them manage to run a successful gallery while maintaining their own studio practice. Mary Judge is one such artist, known both for her complex and delicate work on paper, and for the Bushwick-based gallery, Schema Projects, which she owns and operates.

Here, she discusses the unique point of view that Schema Projects offers, the differences between Bushwick and Chelsea, and what it’s like to run a gallery when you’re an artist yourself. Schema Projects’ latest exhibition, “Fred Valentine: The Pumpkin Festival and other Portraits,” opens January 22.

Schema Projects is unique in that it is the first gallery in Brooklyn dedicated exclusively to works on paper. How and why did you decide that?
My neighbor Jason Andrew suggested this to me. It was so obvious, but I was wracking my brain to figure out how to distinguish my gallery because otherwise the sky is the limit—working inside structural constraints is so much easier. And of course, given my own personal history with paper, it was natural.

The gallery is also unique in that it’s housed in a former barbershop. Did you keep any of the old furnishings? How many strands of hair have you randomly come across?
Ha! If only it had something interesting of the past! We had to gut that rat trap. We left nothing, but found that great tin ceiling in perfect condition and gained a lot of ceiling height. The front façade was ready to fall down so, in a way, it was very good that I remade the entire space.

How does the Brooklyn art scene compare to Chelsea?
Brooklyn: wild and wooly and full of fleas, meet and greet artists on the street, studio visits in a New York minute cause there are so many out there. Spontaneous, tight, loyal, and positive, despite the pressures that bear down on artists and their situations daily. It’s a big bedroom with a pajama party going on. Warm and fuzzy, crazy and cranking, inconsistent, “Spanky and our Gang.”

Chelsea: rarified spaces, the gallery as museum, see and be seen, corporate party, living in the ether, artist as entertainment, mega and mighty, the land of the still standing, the place where we really all wanna land.

Mary Judge, Concentric Form Series 03 (1997). Courtesy of Schema Projects.

Mary Judge, Concentric Form Series 03 (1997). Courtesy of Schema Projects.

What is the transition from artist to gallery owner like? Has selling art affected the way you create art?
Funny, it does not feel like a transition. It seems like a natural outgrowth, a private living room where “I am the decider.”

I can’t say it has affected how I create, but I sure have a lot more respect for dealers.

Your career really took off after your “Selections ’97” show. Can you tell us more about it?
People remembered that show for years, and curators came back to me for work for shows for years after that. Artists like also saw my work and recommended it to their galleries. I’m grateful for that.

What do you like to do when you’re not painting?
Nest. Renovate. Network. Travel and feed my head.

You frequently travel abroad, mostly to Italy. How has that influenced your style?
My Italian peers and their dedication to art as a way of life and a way of thinking left a strong mark on me. They were tough critics—both of each other and the world around them—but were also accepting of me and my work. They were gentle “teachers” who encouraged me to make shows in off-beat spaces with the materials on hand, and that was completely outside my training. That today I still show there and have garnered respect means a lot to me. So from the start, Italy was critical to the evolution of my practice.

From my undergrad time in Rome, where I became acquainted not only with great art and architecture of the past, but life lived within its constant presence on a daily basis, Italy always “clicked” with me, as it has with so many others. One thing you can celebrate in Italy is beauty of every kind: you don’t have to apologize for that, it’s not suspect. The challenge then as an artist is not to replicate that, but to make a thing or experience that can stand in one’s time. I think I managed that. It was a counterpoint to many of the harsher and possibly more cynical aspects of what was going on in the art world and art market in NY at the time, so it kept me “soft” in a good way.

The sensuality, materiality, and craft-derived aspects of my work were reinforced by Italian culture, for sure. I think my work honors tradition and moves it along the big art highway.

Mary Judge, Pop-Flowers LM29 (2013). Courtesy of Schema Projects.

Mary Judge, Pop-Flowers LM29 (2013). Courtesy of Schema Projects.

Is there a gallery or museum in particular whose exhibitions you can’t miss when you’re in Italy?
Outside is often as good as inside: you learn in the piazza, the church, or the ruins which interest as much as a museum or gallery. A few favs I love to revisit: the ceramic museum in Deruta, the Calder outside the train station in Spoleto, and the Carandente collection in Palazzo Collicola. The town of Foligno has surprising new exhibition spaces for a “provincial” town, as does Citta di Castello with the Burri Foundation and Museum.

Of course there is always the Biennale! Venice is a dreamscape for contemporary art.

If you could have dinner with any person, living or dead, who would you choose?
Not dinner, a studio visit! To the ancient craftspeople of any culture, I want to “see how.”

What’s next for you and Schema Projects in 2016? Any upcoming exhibitions?
Fred Valentine, an artist local to Bushwick and Ridgewood, will be presenting his over-life-sized portraits. Artist and curator Jeanne Heifetz will be curating again— something she is just a natural at—for a show titled “Passing Through.” It’s thread and weaving related.

I also organized a big international traveling show titled “Tower of Babel,” which will travel to Israel and Italy. I became intrigued by this story in Genesis about the source of all our languages, and the idea of the inability to communicate by way of language as a punishment for challenging god. All the works in that show will be created on that theme. And next fall, I am showing the wonderful works of Ward Schumaker from San Francisco. So that’s a few highlights.

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